Notes from Purgatory – “Brevity. Soul. Wit.”


I received some of the best advice about my craft when I was just an innocent little undergraduate English major with my bundle of Faulkner books and frequent coffee-drinker punch cards.  I was taking a Rhetorical Composition class headed by a man we called Professor John even though such a title was still many years off.  He was a great teacher who interweaved his lessons with little nuggets of wisdom about how real life was for writers – how to cope with the constant flow of rejection form letters, the countless hours of editing, and what language publishers spoke to name a few.

One day, he assigned us a ten-page essay on any topic we desired.  His intent was to later comb through the composition to determine our strengths and weaknesses and present such in a one-on-one meeting outside the class.  I turned in an ambitious piece about humanity’s underlying, internal struggle between base instincts and the inevitable progression toward civility (I was also a psych major, go figure).  When it was my time to sit down with Professor John, his words were encouraging.  But after a few rounds of niceties, he touched on some of my weaknesses and, thus, changed forever the way I approach the craft of writing.

“You used a lot of big words, Frank,” he’d said.  “But, even though they were used correctly, their effect was lost because, in most instances, you sacrificed precision of language for flash and a few extra syllables.”

I nodded, understanding what he’d meant, but not how to apply what he was saying.  Those big words were just how I wrote.  I was just verbose, dammit.  How was I supposed to change the way the words came to me during my moments of inspiration?

“Frank, every word we write needs to be precisely the right word from start to finish,” Professor John continued.

“But how do I know the right word?” I interjected.

“You develop an instinct for it,” he replied.  “You start seeing and hearing the right word.  You know it by how it enhances the words around it.  And the sentence it’s in.  And the paragraph.  And the page.  And the whole piece.”

“I see,” I said, thinking he was finished.

“And,” he continued, “the mind of the reader.”

I paused, my mouth mostly likely agape.

“These big, but imprecise words tell me you’re writing for yourself,” Professor John said, “but you need to be focusing on the reader.  Impress them with what you’re saying, before you do so with how you’re saying it.  That’s another instinct a good writer needs — the ability to discern what is beneficial to the reader.  And brevity and precision are key, Frank.”

I was dumbfounded.

“Look, I see this problem a lot, especially at your level.  Hell, I dealt with it myself.  But you need to remember it’s just another layer of fluff that needs to be peeled back if you’re to find your true voice.”

Those words were some of the most inspiring I’ve ever heard about the craft because they were so personal.  They taught me a strange species of humility and appreciation for those who read my stories.  From there I focused on becoming both concise and precise with my craft instead of running to consult a thesaurus every other paragraph.  I took Professor John’s words to heart and have become a better writer for doing so.

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